Slavery isn’t Just Prevalent Today, It is Normal
We were graciously greeted and invited to sit down in the weathered white plastic chairs circled in the dirt yard as we unexpectedly arrived just before meal time. I introduced myself to everyone and found a place to sit down. A daughter was serving the meal of beans, rice, sauce and chicken feet that she had just prepared over a charcoal stove. As those around me ate and laughed I was concentrating on my Kreole working to engage in the conversation. Then I saw her, quickly appear as a flash in and out of the back door of the small house. Then in and out again. She was hurriedly working as everyone else was enjoying the visit and the meal. He quietly whispered to me in English, “She is the restavek.”
Restavek roughly translated is “to stay with.” To put it nicely, it is a condoned form of slavery in Haiti. Ask anyone who lives or works in Haiti. It is real. Everyone knows about it, and it is considered very normal.
She finally came out of the house and stopped to look around, making sure everyone had eaten. Trying not to be noticed, she glanced at the stove, quickly got a plate, served herself, and settled into a chair back behind everyone else. As the conversation centered on different family members and learning about their “blan” guest, someone decided to send out for drinks. She was sitting behind us, so I hadn’t noticed she was the only one that didn’t get a drink until the woman who “owns” her suddenly stood up to yell at her. One of the children gave her what was left of her drink. “Pa bay li (don’t give it to her)!” She screamed among a plethora of other phrases I couldn’t catch due to the rapid rate the words were suddenly being spewed. She slouched in her chair, cowering, humiliated in front of everyone. My blood boiled at the injustice of the situation. However, the most alarming aspect to me was not that it happened. It was the normalcy of it all. There wasn’t even a slight tension in the air when she got up and began to degrade and yell at this young lady. It took me a moment to realize it was happening. The behavior was expected. Normal. Accepted. And I am astonished by the implications of what that means for this young lady.
She was allowed to keep the drink, however, it probably tasted a little less sweet.
“Ki laj ou (how old are you?)” I asked her, “Disèt (seventeen)” she quietly replied. This summer, she will be the age of our girls at Emmaus House. My heart sinks. I see the faces of our own youth who have stood in her shoes. The challenge is to teach what they should instinctively already know…that they are worthy…of living.
I witnessed a mere 30 minutes of this young lady’s life. In that time it was clear to me that she lives her life in this family as an outsider. She will never belong there. She will always observe but never participate in the family life. She will be made to feel she is insignificant and unworthy. And if she doesn’t yet believe the degrading words that are said to her day in and day out, she will soon enough. And it will be seen as normal.
This week, my two 8thgraders (one of them Haitian) participated in a “slave experiment” in their history class where the intent is to help them see, through a very tiny window, a few of the things slaves experienced. They experience one day as a "slave" and one as a "master". As they go through each experience they are to reflect on and write about their feelings – on all ends of the spectrum. It was well done, in my opinion. On the way home from school today, I asked my daughter what she learned. She replied, “I learn about slavery in school and I hear you talk about it all the time, mom. I know it’s bad, but today I understood how it isn’t just physically harmful, but it’s also very emotionally and mentally harmful. You don’t feel like a real person when someone treats you that way.”
Being made to feel less than human should never be considered normal.
I first started studying modern day slavery in 2012, the same year the End It Movement arose as a medium of awareness. Today is Shine a Light on Slavery Day. I’ll have a big red “X” written on my hand to shine a light on the darkness of slavery for those I love who have come out of it. So many who live in slavery all over the world don’t see it as unusual. It is acceptable to them because this is all they know. Only the two of us in that group sitting there that day thought there was anything wrong with the situation. We are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14) the job of light is simply to shine in the darkness. A simple red “X” on your hand today can shine a light on the abuse and dehumanization going on every day in the world. It should never be tolerated, much less seen as normal. When we shine a light on the darkness, it cannot survive.